Project Canterbury  

Charles Johnson of Zululand

By A. W. Lee

[no place:] The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1930.

Chapter I. Zululand and the Zulu people

THE map of South-East Africa shows Zululand as a small portion of territory lying between the Colony of Natal, the Indian Ocean, and Portuguese East Africa. Its boundaries are well marked. It has the sea on its south-east, the Tugela river on its south and west reaching up almost to the Drakensburg mountains, and the Pongola river on its north. The country may roughly be divided into three parts. The coast-belt with its almost tropical climate and vegetation, the middle veld, consisting of open rolling country where trees of all kinds nourish, and the high veld with its flat plains broken by rough stony kopjes and ridges, and marked by an almost complete absence of trees or shrubs. The country is, for the most part, well watered. From the Tugela river in the south up to the Pongola in the north the land alternately rises above and sinks to the level of the five large river valleys which traverse it. Besides these there are many small streams which break up the country between the larger rivers.

Zululand is one of the pleasantest parts of the Union of South Africa. Except on the coast and in the low veld its climate is uniformly good and healthy. It has a sufficient rainfall, its soil is fertile, though not markedly so, and its scenery is diversified, ranging from wild mountain country and the thick bush of the middle veld to the tropical scenes and scents of the coast.

The Zulu people, the modern African inhabitants of this pleasant land, form a branch of that great stream of Bantu migrants which, possibly at the beginning of the seventeenth century, made its way down from East and Central Africa, across the Zambesi, and into the southern extremities of the continent. It is, apparently, impossible clearly to identify either the time or the manner of this incoming of the Bantu into South Africa, but certainly it cannot well be placed earlier than the seventeenth century. While the Sutoid branches of this people (Basutho, Bechuana) invaded and settled the western deserts and the adjacent highlands of northern Cape Colony and the Free State, and the Xosa-speaking tribes (Gcaleka, Gcaika, Tembus) settled in the south and east of Cape Colony, the third branch, consisting of various elements, drifted down into Swaziland, Natal, and Zululand. Whoever were the original inhabitants of these lands, whether Bushmen or Hottentots, they soon and very completely disappeared, leaving behind them only a few traces of their occupation of the country in the shape of Bushman drawings in the remoter hills, sundry place names which bear the mark of other than a Zulu origin, and the occasional profile of a Zulu strongly reminiscent of Hottentot or Bushman physiognomy. Of the mixed elements of Lalas, Mngunis, Bacas, and others who formed this easterly branch of invaders the most prominent were the Mtetwas. Settling along the Zululand coast, this clan rapidly became the overlords of most of the neighbouring peoples. In the time of their great hero, Dingiswayo, they ruled over most of what is now Zululand, as well as along the north coast of Natal. Among the clans which owed them allegiance was the small tribe of the Zulu people, whose tribal lands were situated in the rather forbidding valley of the White Umfolosi river. This small tribe of "tobacco-growers," as the Mtetwas scornfully called them, had close relationships with many of the other Mngunis, Qwabes, Mcunus, and Sibiyas, by whom they were surrounded. They shared a common ancestor with many of these clans, not so many generations back. This was Nkosinkulu (Great Lord), who begat Zulu, who begat Mageba, who begat sons who begat Senzangakona, the first Zulu chieftain about whom anything definitely is known. Senzangakona, having lived his life in peace and quietness under the "armpit," as the Zulu has it, of the Mtetwa overlord, died, leaving behind him an unruly son of the name of Chaka. Just before his father's death Chaka had been one of the "braves" of the Mtetwa army within the ranks of which he had greatly distinguished himself. A savage and fearless fighter, his bloodthirsty character showed itself thus early in his career, and he was feared rather than admired by his fellows. His father's death was not altogether free from the suspicion of having been hastened by Chaka. About his brother's death there was no possible doubt. Chaka desired the chieftainship, and any who stood between him and his desires were simply removed. Once in power, however limited, he made the most of his opportunities. Tribe after tribe was attacked by him and overcome. The Bantu are not naturally warlike, but Chaka soon taught them that they must be so. Formerly their fighting had been a leisurely proceeding, beginning when the sun was well up and ending in plenty of time to allow the combatants to go peacefully home to supper. The native warrior, anticipating modern usage, took for his motto the slogan "safety first." But Chaka changed all that. With him it was death or glory, and very soon this became the rule also of his rank and file.

The South African native is one of the most tractable and docile persons in the world, or rather was, until modern civilized notions changed him. But his very docility played into the hands of an ambitious tyrant of the description of Chaka. He exacted obedience, and it was accorded him. He taught his people new methods of warfare and they quickly learned them. He himself was utterly without ruth, and soon his people acquired the same ferocity in battle. In fight after fight he emerged victorious. Rival chiefs were slain together with their older people. The young of both sexes were swept either into his harem, or those of his more prominent followers, or into the ranks of his army.

This savage warfare started, as history relates, wave after wave of invasion and bloodshed throughout most of south-eastern Africa. Its repercussions were felt far to the south in Cape Colony, and still farther to the north, in Mashonaland, in Basutoland, in Gazaland; everywhere, in short, where there were men to be killed and women and cattle to be acquired. Soon those tribes which had before been distinguished by their own proper designations were taught to consider themselves as Zulus, and so what is known as the Zulu nation came into being. Chaka was assassinated by his two brothers after a life of bloodshed, cruelty, and violence. Dingane, one of the fratricides, succeeded to the throne after having disposed of Mhlangana, the other murderer of Chaka. Dingane was a second Chaka in ferocity and bloodthirstiness without, however, having his brother's saving quality of personal courage. He, in his turn, was defeated and slain by his brother Mpande.

Mpande, considered by his family as three parts imbecile, was yet possessed of sufficient wit to rule his turbulent people for a long spell of years in a state of modified peace. In middle life he grew enormously stout, and was superseded in the affections of his people by his son Cetshwayo. The family traditions were safe in the hands of this young man. Quite early in life he removed from his path a rival brother, Mbulazi, together with sundry others, both women and men, who might have interfered with his ambitions. Mpande died in a good old age foreseeing and foretelling, as Chaka himself is said to have done, the early collapse of his dynasty. Cetshwayo took up the sceptre which, in his opinion, became him vastly more than it had ever become his soft and peace-loving father. Very soon he was embroiled with both Dutch and British, and the Zulu War of 1879 brought an end, not only to the kingship of his house, but also to the nationhood of the Zulus. Cetshwayo was exiled, restored to his people, plunged into civil war, and died, leaving his distracted country in the hands of the no less distracted British Government.

What, it may well be asked, could the ultra-respectable Englishman of the Victorian era do with such a country and such a people? He was ready enough to fight the people, as he was at that time to fight any people who wished to fight. But to rule them, to settle their dynastic disputes, to turn their spears into pruning-hooks and their battle-axes into hoes, was more than he felt ready to adventure. This mood of distraction with colonial and native affairs in South Africa is very plainly reflected in the politics of the time. A few years previously the same shilly-shally policy had appeared in the dealings of the British Government with the natives of Cape Colony as was now apparent in its dealings with the defeated Zulus. First one policy was adopted, then dropped, and another put in its place. The trouble was not so much due to the fact that the ministry lacked the courage of its convictions, as to the fact that it lacked convictions which beget courage.

It is, of course, easy enough to be wise after the event, and full allowance must always be made, when commenting on the lack of wisdom shown in handling the Zulus, for the enormous difficulties which presented themselves to the official mind. But it may be permissible to say now that if the government had boldly taken over Zululand in 1883 as a protectorate, recognized the son of Cetshwayo as paramount chief, placed British Residents and Commissioners in the country, and ruled the country for the good of its original owners, much bitterness, bloodshed, and trouble would have been avoided, and the Zulu people would have preserved its identity as a nation with the path of peaceful progress open widely before it.

But this was not to be. After the death of Cetshwayo his son, Dinuzulu, was recognized as a petty chief, other chiefs having been previously appointed to rule over the people in different parts of the country. This, again, would have been an intelligent policy if the old ruling houses which were in power in ante-Chakan days had been revived and their living representatives appointed chiefs. There would then have been possible a return to the old tribal loyalties which had never altogether died out even under Chaka's iron hand. But the chiefs appointed were, on the whole, with two exceptions, the worst possible men to have been chosen. They commanded no respect from the ruled, and their main object was to provide for a possible, but under the circumstances an exceedingly problematical, old age by taxing all who would pay taxes, and spending nothing on the administration of their areas. Trouble followed, and during the years 1884 to 1888 the whole country was plunged into strife. This period of trouble was plainly reflected in the slow progress of the missionary work carried on amongst the Zulus, as we shall see in a later chapter.

In 1884 a large slice of the best part of the Zulu country was taken over by Dutch emigrants from the republic of Vryheid. These men had been called in by Dinuzulu to help him in his perpetual bickerings with his uncle Sibhebhu. Upon the final rout of this chief the Dutch claimed half of Zululand as their reward, and got it. Thereafter the country settled down, more or less quietly acquiescing in what it could not alter.

Until 1906, when the sad and abortive Bambata rebellion, with its aftermath of trouble and bloodshed, took place, there was no more fighting in Zululand. Nor has there since been any. It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that the Zulus have no sense of injury rankling in their hearts. They have a very powerful grievance against all men with white skins. Why, they continually ask, was their country taken from them and they themselves treated like the Kaffirs, which they distinctly are not? Why should Great Britain be so indulgent with other defeated people as to hand back their country to them after having conquered it, but not to the Zulus? Why cannot they be allowed to have a voice in the making of the laws which govern them? Why must they pay taxes; why be driven off their ancestral lands, or be obliged to pay rent to a white man in order to be allowed to live where they lived for generations before the white man appeared? Why should they not be allowed to have a king, or rather to recognize as their king him whom they all hold to be the head of their nation? The reader will see at a glance that questions such as these are unanswerable except under the hypothesis that a Zulu is not really a man at all, but a child incapable of self-government, It will be enough to say here that this hypothesis is not borne out by facts, and is also contrary to the experience gathered in Bechuanaland and in Basutoland, where the very state of affairs desired for themselves by the Zulus is to be found working with marked success.

The foregoing pages have shown something of the character of the Zulu. They have shown him to be docile, easily influenced for good or for evil, intensely loyal to his natural rulers, brave, and, when incited thereto, bloodthirsty and cruel. Apart from politics and warfare, his natural life was in many ways very attractive. His daily life was ruled by the claims of his family and clan. Respect for his elders was always a marked trait in his character. He was early trained in habits of obedience, unselfishness, and self-dependence. These virtues produced in him a certain dignity of deportment and natural good manners which earned for him from all unbiassed persons respect and liking. He was, and is for that matter, a gentleman in most outward aspects. While still ruled by his own kings he spent his early days herding the cattle of his clan, hunting the smaller beasts and birds of the veld, and fighting in mimic warfare with boys of his own age from rival kraals. The girls were strictly looked after by the women, not, in honesty it must be said, from any exalted moral reason, but merely because they were property worth, in the course of time, so many head of cattle to their clan. They spent their time in helping the women to do the thousand and one household and field duties which fall to the lot of women in primitive countries. No self-respecting girl moved far away from the home kraal unaccompanied by a male relation. Every girl was entirely at the disposal of her father or other guardian. She must marry whom and when they decided she must marry. Generally she preferred, so far as any preference was allowed her, to marry into a household the head of which was already blessed with numerous wives. This preference was natural in a way. In a large household she would not find herself the drudge of the whole kraal, as would be her fate if she were the only wife or one of two wives. She would be cared for and protected in the large kraal, and her household duties would be light. There would also be the great advantage of having plenty of female companions with whom she could quarrel and intrigue.

Between the ages of twelve and fifteen most of the boys were taken by their fathers or elder brothers to act as udibi or bearers to them on their numerous fighting excursions or while on other military duty. While acting in this capacity the boys had a very hard life of it. Not only had they to carry the sleeping mats, extra weapons, and other impedimenta over long distances, but they had also to do most of the commissariat work, foraging for and cooking food. Many of them died from over-exertion. Those who survived became hardy and active men, inured to all exertion and hardship, and capable of marching long distances at an almost incredible rate of speed on little food.

At the age of seventeen or thereabouts every boy was enrolled by the king for military service. Having been called up to one of the large military kraals which were scattered about the vicinity of the king's residence the boys went through certain preliminary tests, such as killing a young bull with their bare hands, and thereafter they were formed into an entirely new regiment. The service they owed to the king was not entirely military. They built his huts, weeded his fields, cared for his cattle, and generally made themselves useful in times of peace. The girls were also enrolled in regiments which roughly corresponded with those of the men. The women's regiments were not, of course, used in war. Their purpose was, besides teaching them obedience and loyalty to the king, to provide wives for the men. No man was allowed to marry until the king gave the order that the regiment to which he belonged could tunga, that is, assume the head-ring of manhood. Even then his choice was restricted to the members of the corresponding regiment of women from the ranks of which he must choose his wife. After about the age of fifty the men were released from active military duty and were only liable to be called up in a national emergency.

It would serve no useful purpose here to describe in detail the group of customs centring around the marriage of a man with a woman. It is sufficient to say that the arrangements connected with a wedding were taken out of the hands of the chief contracting parties and carried out by their relations on both sides. Permission to marry the girl was formally sought by the man's friends from the girl's father or guardian, the amount of lobola, in the shape of cattle generally, which the father of the bridegroom must hand over to the girl's people being fixed according to the rank of her family. The girl herself had little to say in the matter unless she were unusually self-willed or strong-minded.

The question of the propriety of the practice of lobola or cattle-marriage has always been a vexed one, especially in the minds of missionaries. At first sight it seems to present all the features of the sale and barter of human life. The Zulu defends it as providing a safeguard for the girl. If a man ill-treats or neglects his wife without due cause shown, the theory is that she is free to return to her own people without the return of the marriage-cattle. In practice, this happens most infrequently. The underlying principle of this form of marriage is the communal idea. The girl belongs to her clan. Upon her marriage into another clan her own people surfer the loss of her person and the services she might render to them. For this loss they must be compensated. The lobola cattle are the compensation given. To the European, with his ideas of individual freedom, the whole practice is abhorrent. Undoubtedly the system contains within itself the seeds of much evil. It cannot be denied that many cases of hardship and abuse of womanhood have sprung from it. Nor is it likely to persist in face of the growing enlightenment of the Zulu people. But no one with a full knowledge of the facts of the situation of this people at present would unreservedly condemn cattle-marriage as altogether evil and unnecessary. If there is anything of value in the Zulu contention that it gives some protection to women, and one would hesitate to deny this, it would be unwise to seek to abolish the system before public opinion is so organized that such safeguards become unnecessary. Where the system breaks down entirely is in the fact that it provides nothing to safeguard Zulu women and girls from the consequences of their own sexual follies.

The proper solution of the lobola and kindred difficulties can only be left to the Zulus themselves to find. No outside agency has the least chance, even if it have the right, to attempt to solve it by some drastic, and probably ill-advised action.

The actual marriage which took place at the home of the bridegroom was an occasion of much rejoicing. Cattle were slaughtered, beer brewed, new and striking dances and songs learned, and the whole country-side came to take part in the feasting and rejoicing. In the "good old days" such junketing led to nothing very serious. Discipline was strong, the moral code though, from our point of view, a low one, was strict, and the king's lieges could not with impunity be maltreated. In these later degenerate days the dancing and drinking go on as before. But they are much too frequently accompanied by fierce fighting between rival clans, and even fiercer love-making between the sexes. To-day a marriage feast is capable of debauching a whole country-side.

The religious belief of the community, so far as they had any, was simple. In the beginning, so runs the legend, UmVelinqangi made the world. He made men and all creatures, man being let down from above in a grass basket and placed upon the earth. After which the Creator left the world and all in it to its own devices. He is not worshipped or prayed to. He is in fact not known as a Being to whom people have any access. The real rulers of the spiritual world are the spirits of the departed, the amakosi or amadhlosi. To these in times of sorrow, sickness, death or famine, sacrifice is made in order to propitiate them. At other times they may safely be left alone. The whole world is ruled by spiritual agencies, some benevolent some maleficent. There are people, the izinyanga (doctors of various kinds) and especially the izangoma (witch-doctors) who have special modes of dealing with this spiritual world. To them, therefore, obviously, recourse must be had when any spiritual purpose is to be effected. Charms and medicine have powers conferred upon them by their originators. They must be used to ward off or to cure bodily sickness, mental troubles, the designs of enemies, and to help persons in love, and in other troubles of the sort, so that they may have, as a Zulu once phrased it, misquoting the language of the Book of Common Prayer, "a happy issue out of all their affections." Unseen agencies are always at work for or against a man's wellbeing. It is wise then always to walk circumspectly, and to run no avoidable risks. There are "them above" who will surely get back on you if you give them opportunity. The spirits of the departed may appear for some purpose in the world, generally as serpents. Where they abide otherwise is not clear in Zulu thought, nor does it matter. There is the whole universe before them to choose from. So then certain kinds of serpents must not be killed, especially if they are encountered near a kraal. They may be the embodiment of some famous ancestor come to warn or to presage disaster.

Socially the Zulu had almost as many conventions as his more sophisticated civilized fellow-creature with a white skin. From the king on his primitive throne down to the newest recruit in the army, every man cherished social ambitions. The Zulu is a great climber socially. By adding wife to wife, and kraal to kraal, he takes on new dignities and improves his social standing. Let him be appointed an induna, or petty headman in his district, and his importance is enormous. His sense of the pride of birth is keen. There is probably no prouder man on the face of the earth than a member of the house of Senzangakona, the Zulu royal house.

In his personal habits the Zulu is careful, cleanly, and always dignified. His code of manners is lofty. His courtesy and deference, and an easy accommodation of himself to the peculiarities of others, mark him as a true man of the world. In speech he is vigorous and picturesque. His language shows great vitality, and it can easily absorb and express ideas strange and foreign to its first begetters. Its grammar is logical and not difficult to learn. But spoken idiomatically Zulu, in common with many African languages, presents almost insuperable difficulties to the European mind and tongue. Generally speaking, only those Europeans who have been born and bred in it ever speak it even reasonably well, though there are naturally exceptions to this rule.

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